Kaavan was dubbed "the World's Loneliest Elephant" after spending more than 8 years in total isolation in Marghazar Zoo, Islamabad, Pakistan. Prior to his partner, Saheli's death in 2012, he'd spent the vast majority of his 34 year life on a 10m chain in the confines of a small, dilapidated enclosure with Saheli being his only stimulation. Following her demise, he was kept totally alone and remained chained at the ankle.
Noticing his psychological and physical deterioration after her death, visitors to the Zoo began to raise concerns over his well-being. Their pleas were initially directed at the Zoo management, but as no action was being taken, the people of Pakistan and most notably, Anika Sleem and her colleagues at Team Kaavan, began online campaigns to raise awareness for Kaavan's plight.
These social media campaigns reached the award-winning actress, musician and humanitarian, Cher, in 2015. Learning of Kaavan’s struggles, she immediately sought the means to improve Kaavan's situation. These efforts led her to Mark Cowne, of Kruger Cowne and his wife Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne; two life-long conservationists.
Together, Cher, Mark and Gina formed the charity, Free The Wild, to assist Kaavan and other suffering wild animals in captivity. They set out to collect and collate as much information as possible in a bid to have Kaavan freed. This included an exploratory visit to Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary in 2016.
Following substantial lobbying with zoo officials for better living conditions - as was Free The Wild's primary intention - they were able to convince the Zoo's board of directors in 2016 to release Kaavan from his chains, repair his accommodation and provide him with water in his pool. But, over the period, their work with Kaavan revealed that he was suffering from deep, significant mental health issues and needed to be released from the zoo.
After several visits to Pakistan, Mark and Gina made connections within the government, designated roles to representatives on the ground, arranged legal council and lobbied the Zoo's controlling authorities.
In recognition of Anika Sleem of Team Kaavan's efforts, in 2018 Anika was formally invited to become a Free The Wild Trustee; bringing with her all of her connections and her knowledge of Pakistan and its associated diplomacies.
2018 was a year of great change in Pakistan and saw Imran Khan being elected the country’s Prime Minister and the establishment of a new government - all relatively unaware of Kaavan's plight. The new government gave control of Marghazar Zoo to the Ministry of Climate Change. With these changes, Free The Wild needed to completely renegotiate the entire retirement and relocation of Kaavan and develop an altogether new relationship with the people in charge.
After almost five years of negotiation, conflicts with pro-zoo lobbyists and, more recently, the COVID-19 world pandemic, Free The Wild finally received a resounding agreement from the Pakistan Government, confirming that Marghazar Zoo would cease operations and, not only Kaavan, but all of its animal inhabitants were allowed to be re-homed.
On receipt of this news and within a space of just five months, Free The Wild worked to arrange the relocation of Kaavan, along with appropriate medical care, transportation and logistics. Being such a small team, they are deeply grateful for the support offered by their NGO partners, Four Paws and Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary.
Kaavan, being the most famous of the zoo's residents, remained the focus of the entire project. With assistance, Free the Wild were able to have Kaavan's CITES permits processed, build a transfer crate, improve his diet, arrange heavy duty ground and air transport, stimulate his mind and improve on his overall psychological and physical welfare.
At the end of November 2020, the founders of Free The Wild team united in Pakistan, with their local team members, to answer questions, strengthen ties with the Pakistan government and ensure Kaavan was fit to travel. Since Free The Wild’s first visit they were sure that Kaavan knew people were trying to help him. During the transfer visit, it was abundantly clear that Kaavan’s stereotypical stress related behaviours had dramatically reduced and he was willing, at every turn, to do what he needed to, to facilitate his treatments and his transport.
Travelling by his side, Dr. Frank Goeritz, one of the world's leading elephant veterinary experts, was delighted at how well Kaavan handled his sedation over the 23-hour, 4000km journey by road and air, to Cambodia.